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Rusedski making racket in Britain


WIMBLEDON, England -- The new king of British tennis is a kid from . . . just outside Montreal?

The player's name is Greg Rusedski. He's 21. He has a serve like thunder. And unlike the rest of the players in his adopted country, he's actually not afraid to talk about winning.

So yesterday, Rusedski showed up at Wimbledon, took over Court No. 3, clocked some lucky loser named Stephane Simian of France in the first round, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, and signed so many autographs it looked as if his hand would fall off.

The only thing missing was a sea of Union Jacks.

And to think, none of this would have happened had Rusedski not fallen in love 2 1/2 years ago with a former Wimbledon ballgirl, Lucy Connor. The two now live together. And Rusedski, born and raised in Canada, is able to play for Britain courtesy of his mother, a native of north England.

"It was so spectacular out there. The public is really behind you. They would like to have someone get to the quarterfinals and semifinals. They want it so bad," said Rusedski in an accent that all but screamed hockey and Molson beer.

But the Brits will take him.

British men bearing tennis rackets are kind of like the Chicago Cubs of international sports. Fred Perry was the last British man to win Wimbledon. That was in 1936. The last British man to reach the Wimbledon semifinals was Roger Taylor in 1973. And Virginia Wade's 1977 women's title was the last good thing to happen to a British player at Wimbledon.

Three other British men won matches yesterday, and it was kind of like New Year's Eve in Trafalgar Square.

"I can't even imagine what it must have been like when Roger Taylor made the semis," Rusedski said. "It must have been absolutely crazy."

Don't expect any surprises this year. Rusedski is the first British men's player in a generation to get odds to win Wimbledon of under 1,000-1. Ladbroke's made him 200-1, which matches the odds on whether the British Museum will authenticate the Loch Ness monster.

"Wimbledon reveals our genius for making a wonderful event out of a national disaster," wrote sports columnist Michael Parkinson in yesterday's Daily Telegraph. "Wimbledon is the best, our players are the worst. Explain."

There are all sorts of theories about the British tennis malaise. In a country still shackled with vestiges of the class system, tennis remains a sport of the rich. Britain turns out soccer stars, not tennis players.

Club coaching has been labeled as awful. The country's grass courts are seen as impediments to developing players who will have to earn their living on clay and hard courts. There is even the notion that the players who actually compete don't want to sacrifice enough to win.

"We've reached the bottom," said David Lloyd, Britain's new Davis Cup captain and brother of former British player John.

If the British lose their next Davis Cup match against Monaco -- quick, name one of Monaco's players -- they'll get dumped into something called Division III of the Euro-African Zone, with Togo, San Marino and Benin.

"I will commit suicide very fast if we lose," Lloyd said. "We will not lose."

Things are so bad in Britain, they've even brought in Nick Bollettieri to set up a tennis academy.

"Don't say we're developing the Wimbledon champion for 2000," Bollettieri said.

It will take longer than five years to produce a British men's champion at Wimbledon. It even may take another generation.

"We need a role model," Lloyd said.

That role model may be Rusedski. He has the fastest serve on the tour. He is ranked No. 60 in the world.

And he must be doing something right, because some of the other British players are griping about how some defector from Canada showed up and became No. 1 in Britain.

"I can understand the way they feel by me coming over and instantly becoming the British No. 1," Rusedski said. "They have put a lot of work in."

The difference is, unlike his fellow adopted countrymen, Rusedski has pure talent. He even conquered his nerves. He lost two Wimbledon tuneups in his British debut and was reading headlines such as "New Brit -- Same Story."

Yesterday, he got a break when American Jim Grabb, his designated first-round opponent, pulled out with an ankle injury. In came Simian, and the new Brit on the block teed off.

The crowd roared.

"I feel British," Rusedski said. "This is why I came over here. I love the country. I feel British completely."


Centre Court Asa Carlsson, Sweden, vs. Conchita Martinez (3), Spain. Michael Stich (9), Germany, vs. Jacco Eltingh, Netherlands. Steffi Graf (1), Germany, vs. Martina Hingis, Switzerland.

Court 1 Andre Agassi (1), Las Vegas, vs. Andrew Painter, Australia. Gigi Fernandez, Aspen, Colo., vs. Lindsay Davenport (7), Murrieta, Calif. Boris Becker (3), Germany, vs. Emilio Alvarez, Spain.

Other seeded players

Court 2 Katarina Studenikova, Slovakia, vs. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (2), Spain.

Court 13 Anke Huber (9), Germany, vs. Tina Krizan, Slovenia. Jana Novotna (4), Czech Republic, vs. Karin Kschwendt, Germany.

Court 14 Mary Pierce (5), France, vs. Sandra Dopfer, Austria.

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